FWF commissioned Landcare Research to carry out a scientific review of FWF management of deer in the Wapiti Area in 2015. A key recommendation from their report was to:

Implement systematic non-selective sampling of 50–150 yearling deer annually for genetic analysis, to accurately and quickly determine the current genetic composition within the herd and to provide a reliable baseline for assessing future trends in genetic composition in response to whatever selective culling regimes are imposed.

The FWF committee asked Landcare Research to design a baseline sampling study for the 2015/16 season. After discussing the practicalities of the study design with the helicopter operators it was agreed that a non-selective sample of 150 yearling aged animals would be taken, by helicopter hunting, from across the Wapiti Area to get a representative sample of the genetics within the deer population.

  1. Samples were taken from animals shot across the Wapiti Area and DNA percentage Elk tests were carried out. There were three key principles behind the sampling programme design:
  2. Only one year old animals would be sampled as this age class would not have been subject to any previous culling and should be representative of the baseline genetics within the population.
  3. Animals would be sampled from across the whole Wapiti Area and sampling spread as evenly as possible over all blocks and (helicopter accessible) habitats.

There would not be any selection of animals based on sex, wapiti or red deer characteristics shown by them or animals associated with them (unbiased sample).

We ended up sampling 156 animals sampled with the DNA elk test results ranging from 71% to 5%. These figures were not that surprising. They showed that even the better Wapiti type animals in the area have some red deer blood in them and that a well-managed culling, with hunter support, to increase the percentage of Wapiti genetic in the population. As expected the average percentage of Wapiti genes was almost twice as high in Core are as it was in the Fringe areas.

Apart from providing critical baseline data for monitoring future progress, other key findings were:

  • Almost all of the animals sampled in the southern and northern fringe areas were of very low wapiti percentage (red deer).
  • Some higher wapiti percentage animals sampled were taken in the coastal areas just south and north of George Sound.
  • A few animals of very low wapiti percentage (red deer) were scattered though the core area.

While doing this DNA (genotype) sampling the phenotype (what they look like) based on 7 visual characteristics, of 113 animals, was scored to compare with the genetics results. Although it was not expected that one year old wapiti type animals would show distinctive wapiti characteristics, initial analysis indicates there was an identifiable relationship between phenotype score and genotype for males, but not necessarily for female animals.

This DNA study has provided some valuable information for FWF, along with it’s scientific advisors, to monitor progress with the animal control programme. The challenge will be to make any necessary changes, based on this new information, to ensure we have the best chance of achieving the habitat conservation and wapiti trophy potential goals over the long-term.